Growing Healthy Relationships


In our last blog we examined one of the three primary tasks (Intrinsic Rewards) of adolescence as defined by Laurence Steinberg in his book, Age of Opportunity. Steinberg states, “The adolescent brain undergoes particularly extensive maturation in regions that regulate the experience of pleasure, the ways in which we view and think about other people, and our ability to exercise self-control. These three brain systems—the REWARD system, the RELATIONSHIPS system, and the REGULATORY system—are the chief places where the brain changes during adolescence.”1

Trauma and ACE

With the exception of education, the majority of youth who are in care of society—whether in corrections or foster care—usually come to us through the trauma of severed relationships. To quote The Jim Casey Foundation, “the great majority of young people in foster care have experienced trauma in some form as a result of maltreatment and foster care placement.”2

These Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) can lead to dramatic lifelong health consequences. “The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is a decade-long and ongoing collaboration between Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, California, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that addresses the way childhood experiences affect adult health. The study has found that harsh experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, or exposure to domestic violence during childhood result in health problems in adulthood. The study reveals ‘a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults.’ The researchers documented ‘the conversion of traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life.’ The findings of the ACE Study regarding early traumatic experiences in children’s lives have important implications for young people in foster care, including the vital importance of trauma-informed services that promote current and future well-being.”3

While in society’s care—whether that be foster care, corrections or education—young people who are “adolescing,” (which can begin at anywhere from 10-12 and continue on to age 25) have specific tasks they need to begin developing. Adolescence is finite, meaning we must recognize and help young people with this developmental stage or it will be lost to them forever.

This blog will focus on the opportunity to help young people build their own healthy relationships.

More Than Professional Relationships

It is not enough to have professional relationships surrounding children-in-care. They need the love of a family. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Caseworkers may believe teens are better off with peers in a group placement, surmising that these youths should prepare to be on their own. In some cases, teens who already have suffered the trauma of disrupted families request a group placement to avoid further disappointment. But research and data show that these beliefs can be misguided, and teens still can benefit from living with a family. In fact, children report overwhelmingly positive experiences with the foster parents who care for them. More than 90 percent ‘like who they are living with’ and ‘feel like part of the family.’ Rates of positive experiences are highest for children who live with kin and lowest for children who experience group placement.”4

A number of outcomes are necessary to help young people build healthy relationships during adolescence

  1. They must know how to form relationships that will support their values and not just relationships that gain them approval;
  2. They must know the difference between being used (manipulated) and being loved (someone seeks their unconditional dignity)
  3. They must be able to know how to build a team of people who will help them live by their values and pursue mastery in a well-balanced life

We must help them learn how to create supportive community relationships, not just provide those relationships to them. They need to know the keys of being “compelling” (drawing healthy people to their lives). In an age of social media, this must include the relationships they form on the Internet, teaching them that what they post is “for every one and forever.” Another term for this is Social Capital.

Here’s what the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative says about social capital and foster teens. “Social capital—social relationships and networks that support healthy development—is essential for all young people. Research, the experiences of child welfare professionals, and young people in foster care make clear that social capital is particularly crucial for older youth in foster care as they prepare to make the transition to adulthood.“5

Another great source of relationships is building “foster grandparents” or “age-inclusive relationships.” Once again, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has exceptional research in this area, they state, “Elders are important resources for family success and community well-being. They are resourceful family members, key contributors to the community, and valuable policy allies for issues of children and youth.”6

At a time when seniors live longer in active retirement, many want to continue in a meaningful role in their community. There is no reason why our young people should not have the “safety valve” of grandparents in their lives. Training seniors to be active listeners and to affirm the developmental steps of adolescents can be hugely beneficial to schools, group homes and even juvenile detention centers.

In lowering violence in three inner-city schools in Regina, SK., we trained seniors to be “Golden Greeters.” In these schools, instead of a message of “No Bullying” which usually backfires and holds up bullying as a behavior that will promote getting attention to attention-hungry children. We asked our Greeters to meet kids and teachers as they came to school and “model the behavior you want to see and specifically compliment the behavior you want to grow (courtesy).”

To meet the need of social capital in adolescents, we need to teach them create values-based relationships with people in their community (and even the world through social media), we need to surround them with “more than professionals” who can support them when they need to be affirmed or when they just need to talk. In short, we need to teach young people to live a compelling life drawing healthy people to their values and areas of mastery.


AGE OF OPPORTUNITY; Lessons from the new science of adolescence, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., © 2011, Laurence Steinberg, pg. 37

TRAUMA-INFORMED PRACTICE with young people in foster care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2011, available at pg. 3

TRAUMA-INFORMED PRACTICE with young people in foster care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, 2011, available at pg. 2 

EVERY KID NEEDS A FAMILY giving children in the child welfare system the best chance for success, © 2015 The Annie E. Casey Foundation, pg. 4

SOCIAL CAPITAL: Building Quality Networks for Young People in Foster Care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, available at pg. 1

ELDERS AS RESOURCES for Children and Families, available at, pg. 2


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